On July 10, 1999, eleven-year-old Christen Press, her face painted red, white, and blue, was in the stands at the Rose Bowl, screaming “U-S-A” alongside 90,184 other fans watching the United States women’s soccer team as they won the World Cup and burst into the national consciousness, inspiring a new generation to want to be like them.
Press wasn’t the only one to think soccer could be a big part of her future.
“The whole country is caught up,” President Bill Clinton, who was also in the stands, told an interviewer. "It's going to have a bigger impact than people ever realized, and it will have a far-reaching impact not only in the United States but also in other countries.”
Clinton had reason to be hopeful. A record-setting 17.9 million tuned in for the final—thousands of them, no doubt, girls like Press who were beginning to form their own dreams of playing soccer before such an audience. According to FIFA, 7.6 million females competed in organized soccer around the world in 1999; by 2015, the number had soared to 30 million. Stars of the ’99 team such as Mia Hamm and Brandy Chastain became bone fide stars, recognizable to people who weren’t soccer fans, and hopes grew that women’s soccer had become big enough to have a pro league in which hundreds of women athletes could earn a living playing the game they loved.
But on the eve of the quadrennial Women’s World Cup, which starts Saturday with Canada facing off against China in Edmonton, Alberta, it’s clear that Clinton’s prediction has largely failed to materialize. While many male pro athletes earn salaries topping $20 million a year; pro basketball leagues exist in Algeria, Paraguay, and Kazakhstan; and the American men’s soccer league averages 19,000 fans per game, women's professional soccer is still an after-thought in most countries. In the U.S.—home to a successful national team, where 1.4 million girls play organized soccer, and 32,185 young women compete in the collegiate game—no women’s professional soccer league has lasted more than three years.
In the coming weeks, enthusiasm for the U.S. Women’s National Team will be evident—the spreads in Sports Illustrated and Glamour, talk-show appearances, sold-out stadiums. But after the cheers from the FIFA World Cup Canada die down, women’s soccer will struggle to avoid returning to near irrelevance, and a generation of elite female soccer players will likely face the difficult decision of whether to continue in a professional league, earning a pittance, or hang up their cleats and move on.
On Jan. 31, 2012, the Women’s Professional Soccer league’s 2011 Rookie of the Year, Christen Press, received an email, saying that due to financial reasons, she would no longer be able to play professional soccer in this country. The league had folded, and along with the 150 or so other WPS players, Press was unemployed.
It wasn’t the first time. In 2004, WUSA, the first women’s professional league, shut down after three seasons, having burned through $100 million in startup funds. The third attempt at women’s pro soccer in the U.S., the National Women’s Soccer League, kicked off its third season in 2015. But most people have never heard of it.
Few games are broadcast on TV, making it tough to get word out about the product to fans who might want to experience it in person. Major media isn’t helping: While a handful of specialized sites, such as Equalizer.com, follow the NWSL, and some local papers cover their teams, the league rarely shows up in the national papers or on highlights shows such as ESPN's SportsCenter. A study by USC released Friday, in fact, showed that women’s sports made up just 2 percent of SportsCenter episodes last year—a share that hasn't budged in 15 years. And though the ’99 World Cup team crossed over through such priceless exposure as commercials for Nike and Bud Light, the women’s pro league gets virtually none of that.
Nobody said starting a professional sports league was easy. For years after Major League Soccer launched in 1993, the league lost millions of dollars and stadiums were empty. Two teams folded. The WNBA, in operation nearly two decades, still leans heavily on its men's league counterpart to stay financially solvent. Even in countries like Sweden and Germany, where women’s professional soccer is considered stable and successful, league attendance is low—Sweden averages 771 fans a game; Germany, 1,185.
“Like any league in their third season, there are challenges,” acknowledges NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush. “But they are challenges born out of wanting to do great things. We’ve had the benefit of being able to look back” at what earlier leagues might have done wrong, he says. “We have more history to draw upon—two previous women’s leagues as well as [almost] 20 years of the MLS. We have better and more defined ideas of what’s going to work.” Branding costs money, though, and the NWSL devotes little to marketing. “We don’t have budgets for print media, for Super Bowl commercials. But the marketplace has evolved—social media is huge. Each team attacks their own market, finding their own way to sell their team,” Plush says.
Until the league can generate significant revenue and prove its relevance in the marketplace, player salaries are kept to a minimum. The United States Soccer Federation covers the salaries of the 23 national team players, who can earn as much as $100,000, according to reports. The rest of the players find it nearly impossible to make a living playing soccer. The base salary is reportedly $6,800; the top of the range, usually earmarked for stars from overseas, is $37,800. So many NWSL players, in other words, make less than the minimum wage recently adopted by the cities of Seattle and Los Angeles.
Most players are making nowhere near that. They live with host families for the six-month season, or they have four roommates. They work second jobs in the off-season, or sometimes during the season. Press relied on her family for support her first year in the league, which she calls “not feasible” for most. Many decide the sacrifices are just too great and retire from the game at the peak of their abilities. Not exactly the typical profile for the retired athlete.
As a result, boys who play sports grow up dreaming of playing professionally, but girls, knowing early on that it’s the most they can hope for, dream of college scholarships. The good news is that nearly all NWSL players therefore have college degrees, often from elite academic institutions—including Stanford, the University of North Carolina, UCLA, Notre Dame, and Duke—that also are soccer powerhouses. The bad news for the NWSL is that players’ career prospects outside soccer are often quite tempting. Jazmine Reeves, a Boston Breakers forward who graduated from Virginia Tech, retired at 22 to take a job with Amazon. Courtney Jones, the daughter of former NFL tight end Brent Jones, retired at 24 to pursue a business career after majoring in management at UNC. The list of explosively talented players who traded in their jerseys for business suits goes on.
“If you want a job in some other field, you’re putting yourself at a big disadvantage by continuing to play,” says Rebecca Moros, who played three years in the WPS and now plays for Kansas City in the NWSL. “When you’re starting your career at 30, you’re way behind.”
One place is demonstrating that women’s pro soccer in the U.S. might yet have a future. Like many things that are cool, quirky, exceptional, and a little weird, it’s happening in Portland, Oregon.
Getting fans to show up once every four years to see the 11 best players in the country is an entirely different animal from putting butts in seats week in and week out to see a few of the top 200. Still, the Portland Thorns average 13,320 fans a game, more than triple the rest of the league.
How do you do that? Lack of competition is probably a factor: No hockey or baseball team steals fans during the Thorns’ March-to-September season. The people in the Thorns’ front office also work for the Timbers, the city’s MLS team—which sells out every game. The Thorns play in a great stadium, renovated for soccer and blocks from downtown in a young, hip, walkable city with an established soccer culture, so it’s easy for die-hard Timbers fans to also be Thorns fans. (The Chicago and New York teams play in the suburbs.) The Thorns’ logo is up there on the side of Providence Park right alongside the Timbers’.
One day last season, the Thorns fan club, the Rose City Riveters, created one of the giant banners, known as “tifos,” it is famous for. It declared, borrowing from Picasso: “Todo lo que puedes imaginar es real.” Everything you imagine is real. In Portland, everything Thorns fans could imagine—their wildest dream of what women’s professional soccer could be—has become real. But for the rest of the women’s professional soccer world, it exists only in the imagination.
When Christen Press and the United States women take the field Monday in Winnipeg, they will know how fortunate they are to be on the world stage. They will be playing not just for themselves but for their NWSL teammates who make $10,000 a year but continue to pursue their dream. All want to do for the next generation of 12-year-old girls what the 1999 generation did for them: make them believe that “everything they imagine is real.”